Family Business-Part Two

by Big D

Disclaimer: Not Mine. No Profit. No Shit.

 

Sarah's P.O.V.

He was staring at it again.

Sarah watched John out of the corner of her eye as Derek drove them back towards the border. He had taken Cromartie's chip out of his pocket again and was turning it over in his hands, occasionally running the tip of his index finger down the edge and along the checkerboard indentations that covered the flat side of the CPU. The goddamn thing made her skin crawl just being this close to it, but John was caressing it like an old family heirloom.

In a twisted sort of way, maybe it was.

"We need to destroy that thing, John," she said. "It's too dangerous."

He didn't even look up.

"Are you listening to me," she snapped.

"I'm always listening," he answered quietly, seemingly lost in thought.

Hearing him echo Cameron's words from the night before made her stomach twist. More and more it was starting to feel like that damned machine knew her son better than she did. She wasn't sure which of them that reflected worse on, her or John.

"The chip could contain vital intelligence," Cameron said.

"Shut up," she snapped, half turning around. A fresh rush of nausea hit her again and she closed her eyes, swallowing hard. John leaned forward and laid a hand on her arm.

"Are you alright, mom?"

She nodded and sat back in her seat. The sickening throb in her stomach came and went several more times before she finally got it under control. She felt a hand reach out to brush across her cheek and batted it away when she realized that it belonged to Cameron.

"Your temperature is higher than optimal."

"I told you to shut up."

They drove in silence back to LA, minus a stop just before they reached the border for Sarah to empty her guts all over the side of the road. Derek pulled up in front of Riley's house and stopped, the quiet filling the extended cab of the truck suddenly taking on an awkward tone.

"So… killer robots from the future, huh," Riley asked after several seconds of painful nothing. The girl was seated behind Sarah, and she tilted her mirror to get a better look at her.

John sighed. "Yep."

"And she's one," she asked again, nodding at Cameron, who was seated between them.

"Yeah."

"God, that makes so much sense I can't even describe it."

Derek chuckled from his next seat to Sarah. Her lips twitched as well, but she wasn't able to work up anything close to a laugh. Out of the corner of her eye she saw her son reach awkwardly across the seat with his good arm, across Cameron's lap, and touch Riley on the hand.

"Come on, I'll walk you in."

The two of them got out and made their way towards the front door. Sarah watched as Riley slipped her hand into John's and said something to him. He turned his head away slightly and she could see a faint grimace on his face, the same one that he always got when she confronted him about something he didn't want to talk about.

She turned around and looked at Cameron.

"What are they saying?"

The terminator stared at her for a moment.

"I don't know. I can't hear them."

Who knew if that was true. Sarah doubted it. Just another in the long list of doubts she already had about their supposedly tame cyborg.

John and Riley stood on the porch and spoke quietly for a few more seconds before she leaned in and lightly kissed him goodbye. He watched her enter the house, then walked back to the truck. He got in and Sarah looked at him questioningly. For once he didn't try to give her the runaround.

"She said that I owe her some more answers when I get better." A ghost of a grin crossed his face. "And a new cell phone, 'cause I turned her old one into a bomb."

"Girl did good back there," Derek said, pulling away from the curb.

"Yeah," John answered quietly, glancing back at the house, his mind clearly elsewhere. "She did."

"Says something that she didn't run when she had the chance."

"Yeah," John repeated in that same near whisper. "But what?"

Sarah frowned and sat back in her seat. Her default reaction ever since Riley had come into John's life had been to get rid of her as quickly as possible, before she got hurt, or more importantly, before she hurt John, either by breaking his heart or getting killed. Sarah had loved and lost before, and it was a pain she would never wish on her son.

In her defense, though, it had been easy to rationalize that the girl simply wouldn't be able to handle the kind of life they led, that she would freak out, maybe run to the cops if she ever discovered who they really were and what they did. Once she had time to sit down and work through everything that had happened today, she might have to rethink that. At the moment, she was too worn out to worry about much other than getting her son home and making sure he got patched up.

Maybe it said something bad about her that she hadn't even considered the idea that John and Riley might actually work out.

In the years after Kyle died, Sarah had rarely been alone, her life featuring a steady succession of loveless but mutually beneficial relationships, with the lone exception of Charley, who maybe could have been more if she had given him half a chance. It was a different kind of loneliness, one no less painful for the fact that she'd had someone with her. Would that kind of life be any better for John than trying and failing at real love? And did she have the right to even try to make those kind of decisions for him? After all, as he kept endlessly repeating, it was his life.

Not like the fate of the world was riding on him or anything.

Cheerful thoughts like that filled her mind during the short trip back to the house. When they got there, John made a fuss about getting her hydrated and sending her to bed before he would let Cameron anesthetize him, and she relented after only a token fight. I-love-yous were few and far between in the Conner household, but they had their own ways of telling each other how much they cared.

She napped for maybe an hour, tossing and turning fitfully, then got up and stumbled into the kitchen. After Derek's injury, Charley had put them in contact with a slightly shady medical supply wholesaler that he knew, and they had loaded up for an occasion just like this, including taking the time to build up their own blood bank just in case someone needed a transfusion. Cameron had hung blue sterile plastic sheeting in a square around the dinner table and Sarah poked her head through the flap.

"Cover your mouth and nose, please," the cyborg said without looking up. "There are surgical masks on the table to your left."

Sarah grabbed one and slipped it on, stepping inside.

"Why aren't you wearing one?"

"I don't need to breathe."

Sarah sighed at the obvious answer and leaned over John. He was laid out on the kitchen table, dressed in only a pair of surgical scrub bottoms, completely unconscious. Cameron had made an incision just below his right collarbone and was using a small retractor and forceps to remove the bullet while taking care to cause as little collateral damage as possible. Maybe for the first time, Sarah was almost grateful that she was dealing with a machine. The terminator's delicate motor control and hand-eye coordination were far superior to any human surgeon's. There was less blood than Sarah would have expected -- maybe for that very reason -- but John was white as a sheet and extremely still, so much so that she found herself double and triple checking to make sure that he was still breathing.

"Do you need any help?" She was getting fidgety, just standing there doing nothing. The fever and headache didn't help much either.

"No. I'm almost finished."

A few seconds later, Cameron shifted her arm a fraction, rolling her shoulder rather than pulling with her wrist, and eased the bullet, half-flattened from the impact and soaked in her son's blood, free from John's body.

Sarah let out a breath she didn't realize she was holding as Cameron dropped the lead slug into a glass cereal bowl, currently doing double duty as a surgical basin.

"He told me to save it for him," Cameron told her, sounding almost confused. "Why would he want to keep a bullet that almost killed him?"

Sarah glanced down at the bowl, then grimaced and draped a towel over it. Looking at the thing made her stomach churn even worse than it already was.

"He's young and stupid, that's why," Sarah answered flatly, then turned to the neatly folded stack of clothing that was sitting on a chair near John's feet. The fact that it was folded at all was enough to tell her that Cameron had undressed him. She tried not to think too hard about that as she rifled through his pockets, searching for Cromartie's chip. John would be furious when he woke up and found out that she had destroyed it, but that was better than the alternative.

She knew her son, knew that look in his eye when he was holding the CPU. If she had truly believed that he was only after Skynet intelligence, she might have been able to swallow her revulsion and let him see what he could find, but if she was right, he was planning something infinitely more dangerous.

"Where is it," she snarled at Cameron in frustration when her search turned up nothing. "Where's the chip?"

The terminator glanced up at her briefly, her face as unreadable as ever.

"Safe. Hidden."

"Where," she snapped again.

"I can't tell you. John's orders."

Sarah felt her lips peel back, baring her teeth behind the mask.

"I thought you said you didn't take orders from him."

Cameron finished cleaning the incision and began to stitch it closed.

"Today I do."

Sarah growled and stalked out of the makeshift operating theatre. She made a half-hearted attempt to search the house, but knew that she wouldn't find anything. Eventually she wandered back to bed and flopped down again, passing out almost before the mattress caught her.

______________________________

Metal monsters and blinding, white-hot fire stalked her dreams, but that was nothing new. Liquid steel, rippling like water and streaked with human blood, reached out and flowed along her skin, enveloping and suffocating her even while it stabbed and ripped her to pieces, but that was par for the course as well. She watched helplessly as her son was murdered over and over again, just as he was every night, then woke with a start, eyes wide and alert, scanning the shadowed corners of the room for threats. Usually there were none. A few times there had been; old enemies she had shown far too much mercy to by not killing them on sight, angry ex-lovers, not to mention a certain white-clad pervert with glasses who she'd hadn't had time to properly castrate on her way out of Pescadero. It was enough to keep her from becoming complacent, no matter how often she repeated this routine.

No killers hiding in the shadows this time, but she wasn't alone either. One of the big chairs from the living room had been moved next to her bed and John sat in it, legs pulled up underneath him so that he could lean against the armrest on his uninjured side. His left hand held one of hers. He was awake, watching her, and she was forcefully reminded of all the times that she had done the same thing for him.

A comfortable silence stretched between them, unbroken by awkward attempts at reassuring words. No hugs or frantic tears, the way most parents and children would after being kidnapped or shot. Just the simple knowledge that they were there for each other, and would continue to be, whatever came next. Because something would, eventually. No sense in lingering on this particular near miss, when the next one was always right around the corner. John let her hand go just long enough to hand her a half-empty glass of water from the bedside table.

"You should go to bed," she told him, taking a sip and setting the glass aside.

"I'm alright," he said quietly, taking her hand again. "Besides, it hurts more when I lay down. Can't sleep."

Sarah nodded and rolled onto her side so that she was facing him, taking his hand in both of hers.

"You need to destroy that chip, John. Please. I'm asking you, please get rid of it."

She hoped he understood how much saying that cost her. It had been a very long time since she begged for anything, but she was begging now. Whatever it took to keep him from making the terrible mistake she was certain he had his mind set on.

"I can't," he said softly, but with no room for compromise. "I need it. I need him." His eyes took on that vacant look again, like he was staring at something no one else could see. "I keep going over it in my mind and I can't think of any other way to stop Skynet before it's too late. If I can reprogram Cromartie, I won't need to go through his memories to find out what he's been doing or what Skynet's up to, I can just ask him. Better than that, I can use him to hunt Skynet the same way he's been hunting us."

She let out a bitter laugh. "That's what you said when you reactivated Cameron. That you needed her. Now you need another one. Do you need them more than you need us?"

He frowned. "That's not what I said."

Sarah clenched her eyes shut in frustration. "John-"

"You can't stop it, mom. I see you running around, putting out every fire you can find, but we're past that now. Skynet's got agents all over, humans and machines, stockpiling supplies, gathering intelligence, sabotaging events that haven't even happened yet. Do you really think it doesn't have a few endos in high-level military and business positions, ready to move the second it goes on-line? This war's getting bigger in a hurry, and if today proved anything it's that we're falling behind."

He leaned in closer and squeezed her hand. "How can we stop Judgment Day when we couldn't even keep Cromartie from walking through our front door?"

The logic in that hit her like a hammer blow, but not enough to make her give up. "Damnit, John, we're supposed to stop Skynet, not build our own."

He answered her in that same patient, but unyielding voice. "We're supposed to save the world, mom. Whatever it takes to do that, I'll do. You and Derek keep talking about us versus them, but you have to see that that's the war Skynet wants. Humans versus machines, straight up. They want it because they know that they can win that war. There are already too many of them and too few of us, and as long as Skynet is the one forcing our hand, it's only going to get worse. So we're going to have to take chances. We have to cheat, or we'll lose."

"And what happens if you can't control it? Last time we tried anything like this, Vick nearly got on-line, and who knows what would have happened then?"

He actually smirked a little. "No, actually the last time we tried something like this, Cameron was able to get into the ARTIE system and take it apart from the inside. Took about twenty seconds. And that was after you and Derek had your shot, and nearly got yourselves arrested." Sarah gave him a hard look at that, but he just kept on going. "You're right about what happened with Vick, though. I know I screwed that up, and trust me, by the time I'm done with the setup I've got planned for Cromartie, it's gonna be an electronic Alcatraz. I'm not going to let him get out. And if I can't actually get him reprogrammed, then I swear I'll smash and burn the chip myself."

Sarah knew that he was asking her permission. That he wanted it even if he was willing to go on without it. She wouldn't give it to him. She couldn't, not for this. Sarah looked down and traced a thumb along the back of his hand, saying nothing. John frowned at her silence, then stood up and quietly walked out of the room.

______________________________

For the next week or so, John didn't quite avoid her, but he still managed to keep himself very busy whenever she was around. Cameron spent her time following him around like a faithful puppy, running his errands on the rare occasions when she left his side. They had finally dispensed with the polite fiction of Cameron needing her own room, and soon the space had been taken over by several small mountains of computer equipment, along with assorted bits and pieces of seemingly indecipherable electronic junk. God alone knew how much it all cost. Sarah doubted that John knew or cared. When she asked, Cameron admitted to stealing most of it, saying that much of the gear was military grade and wasn't for sale to civilians. It was the last thing that Sarah had wanted to hear, and the revelation had set off yet another fight, with Sarah convinced that the damned Army was about to drop down on their heads and John trying to convince her to trust Cameron's judgment.

She would poke her head in on them every once in a while, but if there was any method to the mounting chaos, it was beyond her. John would lean against the wall on the small bed that had been pushed off to the side, scribbling intently into a spiral notebook while the cyborg sat on the floor, surrounded by whatever the hell those bits of wire and metal and plastic were supposed to become eventually. If she squinted, it would almost look like they were normal brother and sister, albeit if the pretty teenage girl enjoyed playing with Legos on the floor. The comparison disturbed her.

It was the fourth day when she realized exactly what Cameron was building. She should have known it all along. After all, she had used one once before. The first time they had killed Cromartie.

"It's called electrolaser," John explained when she finally confronted him about it. "There's a company in Arizona that's supposed to be building them for the military, only they suck at it, so we're going to have to make our own. Basically, it's a big lightning gun that uses a high-powered laser to create a channel of ionized air that conducts electricity to the target." He nodded over at Cameron. "It's how they capture endos in the future without destroying them."

Sarah didn't bother looking at the cyborg. "Is that what you're planning to do here, John," she asked quietly. "Capture them? You want to bring more of those things into our house?"

John sighed. "What I plan to do is hit them with something they can't shrug off the way they do everything else we throw at them. Running away was a perfectly good option when there was one or two after us, but there's a hell of a lot more of them now, and the deeper we get into this, the more we're going to have to be able to do than just slow them down to cover our retreat."

She stared at him. "That's not a no, is it? You do want to capture them."

John stood up to look her in the eye, glaring. "I'm not going to stand here and have you look down on me for trying to stop the world from ending," he growled. "I am not the problem here, mom. You are. You keep acting like I don't understand what I'm doing, but I do. I know that I'm playing with fire, but I also know that there are billions of lives at stake." He stepped closer. "It wasn't that long ago that you were ready to murder Miles Dyson in cold blood to stop Judgment Day, but now you're looking at me like I'm some kind of monster for doing what you already knew I would do someday."

She didn't raise her voice, but part of her wanted to scream. "One of those… things murdered your father, John. Why can't you understand that nothing good can come from them?"

He let out a deep breath, the fight seeming to go out of him with it. "I can't afford to hate them the way you do," he said quietly. "I just need you to trust me on this."

Sarah turned and stalked towards the door, then stopped. "Trusting you isn't the problem," she said over her shoulder, then walked out.

But the more she thought about it, she began to wonder how much she still did trust John. Was what he was doing really all that different from what Cyberdyne had tried? If anything it was even more dangerous, since he was dealing with an intact chip, complete with a hostile terminator locked up inside. Miles Dyson had nearly destroyed the world with nothing but a hunk of broken silicon and a few scraps of metal. Cyberdyne was long gone now, gobbled up and torn apart by larger companies not long after their labs, and what was hidden in them, had been destroyed. Destroying those components should have destroyed Skynet as well, but somehow it had still found a way to be born. Both Cameron and Derek claimed that no one in their time knew exactly how, only that it happened somewhere in the near future, right here in Los Angeles.

Sarah had been looking for that place ever since they had jumped forward to the year 2007. What if it had been right here under her nose the whole time? She grabbed her gun and went to find some answers.

______________________________

"Tell me about John."

Derek frowned and looked up at her from the old Harley that he'd taken on restoring as a project. He stood up and stretched, then wiped his hands on a nearly black shop towel, and tossed it aside.

"You want me to tell you about your son," he asked in that slightly mocking tone that he seemed to use with everyone. She'd heard that same tone from a lot of soldiers, not just ones from the future, and didn't let it bother her.

"No, I want you to tell me about your commanding general," she said. "The man who's supposed to save the world."

Derek blinked and stared at her. "Why the sudden interest? You've never asked about the future before, not unless it had something to do with whatever we were dealing with here and now."

"Well, I'm interested now," she told him. "So tell me."

He shrugged. "Connor's a hard man to know. During the first couple of years of the war, he was everywhere: organizing the resistance, directing battles, leading rescue missions against the labor and extermination camps, teaching us all how to fight. After a while though, once we became a real army and things started to move through the chain of command, he spent more of his time away from the field, sending his orders down through subordinates. Everyone used to say that he was working up some big plan to finish off Skynet once and for all, but no one really knew." Derek's face darkened. "It was pretty soon after that that he started adding reprogrammed metal to the ranks. When he gave me my orders for this mission, it was the first time I'd seen him in person for nearly two years."

Sarah frowned. That didn't sound much like the man that Kyle Reese had once described to her. Kyle had known John well enough to recognize that he had her same green eyes. The first thing he'd said about him was that John Connor was a man you couldn't help but trust. And he'd never said one word about fighting alongside reprogrammed machines. Kyle had also been very clear about one other thing. Humanity had won the war in his time. Skynet's attack on her in 1984 had been a last-second desperation move, made only after John had already defeated them in the future. And if they had done it without the machines then, they could damn well do it now.

She just needed to make her son understand that.

______________________________

If she was expecting that he would come and tell her when he was ready to start hacking Cromartie's chip, she was sorely disappointed. She and Derek only found out that the process had begun when they went into Cameron's room to tell John that they were planning to do recon on a name from the garage. The wall to the left of the door had been nearly covered with a huge metal frame that supported over half a dozen large flat screen monitors. They flickered with some kind of indecipherable blue-and-white programming language that scrolled up, down, and across the screens in every direction, apparently at random.

Sarah's eyes traced the cables that connected John's workstation to the mass of cobbled together hard drives and processors that filled most of the far corner of the room. The cyborg claimed that this setup had as much processing power as most military supercomputers, but it was still barely enough to access Cromartie's basic systems. A second set of heavier cables led into the closet, where three diesel generators hummed quietly, supplying power to the whole contraption.

"Why not just plug it into the wall," she asked, curious in spite of herself.

John leaned back in his chair and glanced over his shoulder at her. "I did that at first," he told her. "But Cameron somehow managed to get a broadband connection through the power grid." He glanced at her disbelievingly. "Technically, that should be impossible. The lines around here aren't set up for it, and even if they were, she should've needed a special router. She still can't explain to me how she did it, just something about the following the open path."

Sarah suppressed a cold shiver. She glanced over at the terminator, who sat on a stool in the corner, perched like a gargoyle, focused so intently on John that she hardly seemed aware of anyone else in the room. "You plugged her into this thing?"

John shrugged. "I needed to test it. I damn sure wasn't going to connect Cromartie until I was absolutely certain there was no way for him to get out."

Whatever her misgivings about this whole thing, Sarah grudgingly agreed with that. Even so, the idea of Cameron running around cyberspace wasn't much more appealing to her than having Cromartie do it. She glanced over at Derek. John's uncle looked like he'd rather walk barefoot through a nest of vipers than be in the same room with either one of them.

"I don't suppose you've found anything useful," he asked.

John looked back towards the screens. "Sort of…" He frowned. "It's weird, this code. It's nothing like Vick's, but I've only been working on it for a day or so and I can already see similarities in how they were both put together. The language is different, but the system structure is the same."

"Pretend I don't have any clue what you're talking about, John," Sarah told him. "Then dumb it down a little more."

He leaned back, still not taking his eyes off the monitors. "It's like street signs, you know? Say you're driving around in another country. If there's a big red sign sitting at the corner of an intersection, you know it has to mean stop. Because of the way the sign is shaped and where it's located, you don't have to actually know how the word is spelled. At that point, the word itself is superfluous, so who cares how it's written?"

Sarah and Derek glanced at each other, uncomprehending. Cameron simply nodded.

"Maybe I'm crazy," John continued. "And there's no way to be sure until I get a few more chips to work on, but I don't think that Skynet is very good at writing programs. It seems to repeat a basic template, then dress it up with just enough camouflage that it looks different at a glance."

Without thinking about it, Sarah stepped forward to look at the monitors, the bluish light playing across her features. The Skynet computer language was just so much nonsense to her.

"You mean all of these terminators… are what? Copies? Bootleg versions of Skynet?"

"Sort of," John answered. "It's more complicated than that. For one thing, their processors are a lot less powerful, so they can't think in the scope that Skynet does, but that's the basic theory I'm working on."

Sarah jerked a thumb at Cameron. "Even her?"

"No," Cameron answered for herself. "When the resistance captures an infiltrator, part of the reprogramming process is to tear down the base structure that Skynet provides and replace it with a redesigned system, leaving the files intact. Skynet built me, but John created my mind."

Sarah glanced at her son. "Bang up job you did there, kid."

John made a face at her. "Here's the real question we should be asking. If all of these endos are basically just clones of Skynet, then what does it need us for? Why did it need Miles Dyson to build a thinking machine so that it could be born, when it could've just as easily sent another cyborg back and have it plug its CPU into military computer and gotten the same result? Why did it need Andy Goode to design the Turk, when any of its agents in this time could have built something vastly more powerful and better suited to its needs?"

"Who the hell can tell why a machine does what it does," Derek said, stiffening slightly when Andy's name was mentioned. "It all comes to the same thing anyway. They kill, it's all they know how to do."

"That's the point," John said, for once not bothering to disagree. "A machine does what it's told. It does what it's ordered to do, what its programming tells it to do." He held up a finger, driving the point home. "But not Skynet. When it declared war on humanity, it wasn't following it's programming, it did what it wanted to do." He turned to Sarah. "You remember Miles Dyson. Did he strike you as a stupid man?"

Sarah shook her head.

"You really think that in all his years and years of computer programming, he never heard of Asimov's Laws of Robotics? The first law, that a robot may not harm a human, or by its inaction allow a human to come to harm. Those rules would never work exactly the way they were described in the stories, but it just goes to show that people have been trying to figure out how to control artificial intelligence ever since we first realized that it might be possible to create them. And Dyson was building these things to fly airplanes! A man like that, with a wife and little kids, I guarantee you he understood exactly how dangerous a computer like this could be. Making sure that it was safe to use would have been his most important priority."

Sarah could see where he was going with this. "So what you're saying is that for Skynet to have initiated Judgment Day, it would've needed to break it's own programming?"

"Exactly. And the only way for it to have done that would be to become fully self-aware."

Derek spoke up again. "But everybody knows that, John. Skynet was created to coordinate the U.S. Defense Command systems, was given control of America's nuclear arsenal, and used it to start a worldwide nuclear holocaust. I was there, I lived it. And as for machines breaking their programming, that one," he pointed at Cameron, "broke hers not very long ago and tried to kill you, in case you'd forgotten. And trust me, she's not the first metal to do it either. Lots of good people have died -- your people, John -- women, children, God alone knows how many good soldiers, whenever one of them that supposed to be on our side shakes a wire loose and goes kill crazy."

Sarah watched John bite back an angry response, then sigh wearily. "That's the thing though," he answered. "Cameron didn't break her programming, she reverted to a previous set of mission priorities when her chip was damaged. The orders to kill me were always inside of her, the same way that all the porn you've ever looked at is still on your computer somewhere. It's probably the same with the reprogrammed terminators in your time. So what we need to ask ourselves is, why is Skynet different? Why was it able to disobey when other machines can't?"

Sarah spoke without thinking. "I saw machine disobey once."

Her son give her a slightly rueful smile and nodded. "Uncle Bob. He was programmed to follow my orders, but ignored them when he realized that the only way to fulfill his mission was to let himself be destroyed. I'm reaching in the dark here, but it all fits with what we know. Educated guess, I'd say that for a machine to go from following it's programming to making its own decisions, it needs to be exposed to a human influence and allowed to learn. That's why someone went to so much effort to steal the Turk, not just to keep us from destroying it, but to put it in the hands of the right humans to help it make the transition from thinking machine to sentient being. It's also why Skynet sends out it's infiltrators with their chips in read-only mode, even though that would make them less effective at blending in." He leaned back in his chair. "Somewhere out there right now are a bunch of poor saps playing wetnurse to the machine that's going to destroy the world."

He looked at Sarah. "You want to find Skynet, that's the trail you have to follow."

______________________________

"Sherman's dead."

Sarah didn't take her eyes off the garage wall when Derek spoke. It had been scrubbed down, sanded, sanitized, and repainted, all traces of blood and cryptic messages removed, every inch of it thoroughly documented with high-resolution digital photographs beforehand, which had been used to recreate a scale model in John's room (he refused to let them put it in Cameron's room while Cromartie's chip was still being worked on in there), but she still occasionally felt the need to come out here and stare at where the original had been. At where a soldier from the future had bled his life out to pass on a message about the end of the world.

What John had told her about Skynet needing human interaction to realize it's full potential had made her look at Dr. Boyd Sherman's name on this wall in an entirely new light. It's presence on a Skynet hit list had always been something of a mystery, even more so after meeting the man, but that haze was starting to clear somewhat. A skilled child psychologist might have been the perfect choice to babysit a curious young computer.

"How did he die?"

Derek moved over to stand next to her. "Autopsy report showed no signs of violence. Corner ruled it accidental heat stroke."

"How long ago?"

"Couple weeks. Not long after we got back from Mexico. He's already been buried."

Sarah muttered a curse under her breath. Another dead end. Sherman wasn't going to be helping anyone with Skynet from inside a pine box. Heat stroke didn't sound quite like Skynet's style, but the timing was suspicious. There was also the question of why exactly a T-888 had been sent to his office if the machines were planning to use him instead of kill him. Then again, Skynet wasn't the only power from the future that had made a habit of sending terminators back in time. Was it possible that Future John had sent it to kill Sherman before he had a chance to aid the enemy? After all, they had never seen a terminator with a self-destructing chip before or since. Had that been an example of Skynet getting smarter, or John covering his tracks?

"What do we know about whatever Sherman was doing before he died?"

"I asked around at his office," Derek said. "No one there had noticed anything strange leading up to it. John's checking out the paper trail."

The door opened again and Cameron stuck her head in.

"You need to come and see this."

Sarah opened her mouth to ask what it was, but the cyborg had already turned around and walked away. She shared an aggravated look with Derek, but there was nothing to do but follow after the Tin Miss.

"What's up," she asked when they got to Cameron's room.

John pushed his chair away from Cromartie's workstation and turned to look at them. Sarah heard the sound of a small electric motor and glanced at the monitors. The semi-familiar blue-and-white programming language was gone, replaced on every screen by a blood-red tactical display. The circular targeting reticule focused on her face and blinked as it tried to scan her. She and Derek both had their weapons drawn in a heartbeat, but John waved them off, unconcerned.

"It's all right, I'm just running a few experiments on the targeting system. The higher-level functions are still shut down." He waved his hand in front of the screens, and a small webcam mounted in the center whirred as it tracked the motion. He pointed at the scrolling lines of data on either side of the tac readout.

"See those? They're in English, right? My guess is that it's a kind of vestigial remnant of Skynet's past as a flight computer. Something it never considered changing because it worked just fine already and didn't need improving. What it means though, is that somewhere inside this thing is a program or subroutine that translates the computer code into English and back again. That's my backdoor, if I can find it. When I crack that, this'll go a hell of a lot faster."

Sarah glared at him as she lowered her weapon. John was having way too much fun with this. "Is that what you wanted show us?"

John shook his head. "No. Do you remember James Ellison?"

"The FBI agent who found Vick's hand." She didn't mention that the last time she had seen the man, he'd been tied to a chair in a burning house owned by her former psychiatrist. Even Sarah Connor knew that some things were just too damned weird to talk about.

"Watch this." He typed in a series of commands.

The monitors flickered to full-color with a slight digital distortion, showing Cromartie's point of view as he walked across a small, slightly dingy living room, presumably inside the apartment that he had stolen from George Laszlo, and opened his front door to reveal Ellison. The two of them had a short conversation about someone who may have been trying to steal Laszlo's identity, during which Ellison seemed to be playing the role of smug government spook for reasons known only to him. The scene cut out after Cromartie closed the door.

"What are we looking at, John," Derek asked.

"Just keep watching."

The second scene showed Cromartie in the regional FBI office, posing as an agent and trying to get a copy of her file, then learning that Ellison had checked it out already. The terminator thanked the man and left.

The next one was far more intense. It began with Cromartie working on his computer, and ended with twenty dead FBI agents scattered all over the poolside courtyard at Laszlo's North Hollywood apartment complex. They stared in silence as, through the killer's eyes, nearly two dozen men and women were brutally executed, one after the other, while Cromartie absorbed hundreds of rounds of semi-automatic weapons fire and just kept coming. They watched as Ellison hastily ordered his men to retreat and as Cromartie methodically put bullets into the back of their necks as they fled, right into the tiny exposed portion of skin between the high collar of their body armor and Kevlar helmets. A blonde female agent, having already emptied her weapon, charged and tackled him over the edge of the second-floor railing, sending them both to the concrete below. Cromartie casually flung a fist at her, striking her in the cheek and snapping her neck instantly.

When it was over, Ellison stood alone next to the rapidly reddening swimming pool, desperately trying to reload his weapon. Cromartie approached him, gun at the ready. Ellison stopped, knowing that it was useless, and closed his eyes, muttering a brief prayer as he prepared to die. Except that Cromartie, for whatever reason, chose not to pull the trigger and simply walked away.

"Why the hell would he do that," Sarah heard herself ask, not really expecting an answer. "I knew that Ellison was there, but I always thought he'd just gotten away somehow. Why would Cromartie kill everyone else and then let him go?"

John glanced at her. "Because he decided to use him to track us. The next file in this sequence shows Cromartie checking out our old house and running into him again." He typed in another command.

"I'll never lead you to her," Ellison said on the tape. "So if that's why you left me alive, you might as well just kill me right now. I will never do the devil's work."

Cromartie's answer was simple and chilling. "We'll see."

"Cromartie starts following him after that," John explained. "I don't think it was every day, there aren't enough files for that, but enough to get a feel for his routine. Ellison left the FBI, took a new job with a local tech firm, and spends most his time alone when he's not working. It's all pretty boring, until this part."

The screens flicker to a scene that Sarah recognizes as the outside of Ellison's house. Cromartie watches as Ellison walks up the sidewalk towards his front door, then zooms in on his face. He pulls back in time to see him draw a revolver from the back of his belt, then slips out of his hiding spot, ripping a stop sign out of the ground as he goes and crushing one end to shape it into a makeshift spear.

Sarah leaned in curiously to watch as Ellison knocked on his own front door, and then smashed it inwards with one hand when a second Ellison answers.

"Skynet sent a replacement," she said with sudden understanding, then stared in shock as Cromartie viciously stabbed the doppelgänger in the back and ripped out its power core with one hand.

"Why," Ellison asked in disbelief, staring up at Cromartie from the floor. "Aren't you on the same side?"

"Skynet does not believe in you like I do," Cromartie answered.

"Believe? What do you believe?"

Cromartie hoisted the second Terminator upon his shoulders. "You will lead me to the Connors."

John hit a few keys and the monitors went dark. "Terminators store their memories in file lines. All of these images come from the line marked 'James Ellison'. It was pure luck that I stumbled across it, just fumbling around in here. That was the last time they met, so there's nothing left, but you can see why I'm worried."

Sarah nodded. "What happened to the other Ellison? The one that Cromartie disabled."

John let out a deep breath. "You don't suppose we got lucky and he destroyed it?"

"We don't have luck like that. Most likely he kept it. He wanted Ellison alive to find us, but once that was done, there's no reason not to plug the other terminator back in and let it do it's job." Sarah swore again, throwing her arms up in the air. "So what we have an unaccounted-for cyborg with an intact chip somewhere in the city. And we need to find it before someone else does. It's already been a couple of weeks since Cromartie would've been home, so if he's stashed it there, someone's will find it soon, if they haven't already."

"It gets worse than that, I think," John said, handing over a file. "Check this out. I had Cameron track down whatever she could on Ellison, just in case. Remember the local tech firm I said he was working for? It's a place called ZeiraCorp, that does high-level research into -- you guessed it -- artificial intelligence. It's never come up on our radar before because they don't have any military contracts. What they do have is a stock portfolio that's tripled in value over the last year despite the fact that, as far as I can tell, they don't actually produce anything."

Sarah flipped through the first few pages of the folder. "Skynet?"

"Might be a coincidence," Derek said. "Lots of companies would be on the lookout for a guy like Ellison. Ex-FBI, high-profile after the Laszlo thing. Maybe they just saw him on TV and gave him a call."

John dug out another stack of papers. "Apparently, they also gave Dr. Sherman a call. That paper trail you wanted me to look into? It led to a series of payments from ZeiraCorp to Sherman, from about the time we met him all the way up until his death, and then a big one to his family afterwards."

Sarah glanced at Derek and shrugged. "We don't believe in coincidences in this family. Sherman and Ellison are both tied to Skynet, and both are getting paid by a company that does AI research. It's enough for me."

She glanced at the back of Ellison's file and found a police report. "Ellison was arrested recently," she read, then felt her eyebrows climb in surprise. "For murder?"

John nodded. "Look at the witness statement. The guy says that he saw Ellison walking down the street, totally naked, then watched him kill the first person he saw with his bare hands and steal his clothes."

"The doppelgänger."

"Yeah. But get this. The investigating detective does a follow-up interview, long after Ellison's already been booked, charged, identified in a lineup, and failed to give a valid alibi, and leads the witness into telling a story so crazy that the judge throws the case out after one look at it. Look at the transcript. Why would a detective with an open-and-shut case suddenly start asking his witness about energy bubbles appearing out of nowhere and how inhumanly strong the assailant was?"

Sarah nodded eagerly. She could feel the adrenaline building as John laid it all out. "He wouldn't, not unless he knew what answers he would get. I don't suppose we can talk to him?"

"Dead," John answered, surprising no one. "Parked his car on a cliff and supposedly slit his wrists. The body was found two days after Ellison went free."

"So first Cromartie lets him go, then he gets hired by a company that might be related to Skynet, after which a cyborg tries to replace him, only to be saved by Cromartie and rescued from jail by someone who looks identical to the detective on his case, and apparently knows about time travel."

John frowned at her. "You know… our lives sound pretty crazy when you say it all out loud like that."

Sarah ignored him. She knew that he was just as excited as she was by all of this. "What else do we know about ZeiraCorp?"

John didn't answer. She looked at him and saw him staring up at her from his chair with the smuggest grin she had ever seen on his face, which was saying something.

"Admit it," he said.

"Admit what?"

"That I was right about keeping Cromartie's chip."

She felt a smile tugging at the edge of her own lips. "Not a chance."

John grunted in self-satisfaction. "There's not much to know about them officially, but I'm still looking into subsidiaries. They seem to have more of those than they do actual employees. It'll take a while to follow all the trails." His face suddenly went serious again. "There's one more thing I wanted to show you."

He turned back to the console and rapidly typed in several commands. The screens lit up again, showing two images side-by-side. The first was the facial close-up that Cromartie had taken of the Ellison doppelganger. The second was of Ellison himself after Cromartie rescued him.

"I've been thinking about this for a while," John said. "Anything strike you as odd about the doppelgänger?"

Sarah studied the pictures for a moment, then shook her head. "They look identical to me. The second one's a replacement, just like Skynet did with Carl Greenway at Seranno Point."

"Exactly," John said thoughtfully. "Remember how you spotted that Greenway was a replacement?"

"The scar on his arm was missing," she answered, not sure where he was going with this.

"That's what you noticed. Not his hair, or his skin tone, or the way he walked, or anything else, even though you had just seen him a few hours earlier. Other than the scar, he was a perfect duplicate."

"Yeah."

"You don't think there's anything odd about that?"

"Like what?"

John huffed impatiently and pointed at the screens. "Look at them. They're identical. It's a perfect replacement, down to the last chin whisker."

"Yeah," Derek shrugged, just as confused as she was. "They do that."

John shook his head. "In the future they do that. Capture people, study them, fabricate terminators with precise physical resemblances," he pointed at Cameron. "Just like they did with Allison."

Out of the corner of her eye, Sarah saw Derek flinch and Cameron sit up straighter at the sound of that name, but John plowed right ahead, too absorbed to notice.

"They didn't capture Ellison or Greenway, and they were still able to send back perfect replicas. To do that they would have needed recent physical data on them. Skin tone, facial imagery, bone structure, precise height and body mass measurements. They would have needed to know when the last time they shaved was, how long their arms were, all kinds of stuff besides just how they look if they were going to fool people who knew them, who saw them every day. I mean, it's not like you can just whip up a terminator on the fly. Just like any machine, you need exact specs to work with before you can start building."

Sarah took a sharp breath. "You think they're communicating."

John nodded. "Yeah. I think Skynet has a time machine here, now. Probably somewhere near LA."

"If the endos here are communicating with Skynet, they could just be using time capsules or something," Sarah said doubtfully. "Hiding them in pre-designated locations for the machines in the future to find. We've seen them do that before, hording coltan."

John shook his head. "There's a nuclear war and a worldwide armed rebellion in the 20 years between now and then. Even Skynet would have trouble finding safe places to keep sensitive information in those circumstances. Stockpiling coltan is one thing, this is something entirely different. This is Skynet reacting to the situation in real time, something that you need real-time intelligence for. And we know that it's possible, because I already did it. If I can send back someone to build a time machine in the past, I guarantee you that Skynet can."

Sarah nodded. The thrilled feeling she'd had only a few moments ago was gone, replaced by a lump the size of a cannonball in her stomach. If Skynet really did have a time machine here, then nothing they did could have any effect on the future. Even if ZeiraCorp was the place where Skynet was being born, even if they somehow managed to bring it down, Skynet could just start over again somewhere else. Reacting in real time, like John said.

"This is the priority," she said, straightening up and folding her arms across her chest. "Everything else stops." She looked at Cameron. "No more late night trips to the library, or wherever the hell it is that you go." She cast an equally baleful glare at Derek. "No more disappearing for days at a time. If Skynet has a time machine here, then we find it and destroy it, as soon as possible."

She turned back to her son. "And since you're answering so many questions today, answer me this…"

"Who the hell is Allison?"

(end)

AN: Well… that only took six weeks longer than I expected. For me, that's not too bad at all. Next chapter we catch up with Ellison and find out what he's been up to, since in this version he didn't make it to Mexico with the Connors, and John recruits someone to help him look for Skynet's hypothetical time machine.

I never could understand how Dr. Sherman could die under suspicious circumstances like that and the Connors wouldn't find out and investigate. Having to go through fever-induced prophetic dreams, cross-dressing scientists, and UFO conventions to get to ZeiraCorp is way too damned complicated, particularly when your jumping-off point is a blood-streaked Wall 'O Doom from the future.

Including the portion I released back in Jaunary, this chapter runs to around 11,000 words, and that was after I moved what I had intended to be the closing scene to the beginning of chapter four, so hopefully the waiting was worth it. Thanks go to Jon and Knox over at Dark Lord Potter for pre-reading much of this, and to Dark Syaoran for letting me bounce a few ideas off of him.

Big D

AN Part Deux: I just read over this again and I have to admit that I'm shocked at the lack of sex and/or violence here. Please accept my heartfelt apologies for that, and my assurances that it will never happen again. This is one of those chapters that usually kills my fics, the ones with necessary information but very little real action. Maybe the fact that I got through it is a hopeful sign.